If you drive the major thoroughfares in East Oakland, you can see the marks they’ve left in their passing. Perfect circles, figure eights, and other strange signs on the pavement, like alien crop circles in an Iowa wheat field, or pagan symbols drawn by the devil’s own fingernail. Area residents speak of hearing their cries late in the night, a hellish screeching and squealing. Some even have seen them personally, appearing from nowhere in the dark hours, converging at crossroads by the hundreds to perform their rites, then scattering, vanishing into the veins of the city at the approach of a flashing blue light.
For most of us, they are but scenes on the evening news, terrifyingly real yet compellingly surreal. Cars whirling in madness as if living beasts. Smoke rising like hell’s fires, as if from the tortured streets themselves. Dark hordes writhing and swaying in the foreground. The images call up the stuff of literature and legend, visions out of Euro-America’s worst nightmares: savages, drunk and dancing, natives rising in the jungle, a frenzy that must surely end with the burning of homes and the murder of sleeping settlers. God help us; it’s the Oakland sideshows.
For more than two years, the events known as sideshows have preoccupied official Oakland, costing the city an estimated million dollars a year in police overtime, allegedly contributing to the death of an innocent motorist, and culminating in an antipolice backlash that ended in the national notoriety that was January’s “Raider Riots.” And yet, for all their impact on Oakland’s image and economy, most people know next to nothing about the sideshows. What are they? Where did they come from? Answers from police and public officials can be wildly contradictory. And though the local media have produced scores of stories on the sideshows and their impact, it has not seemed to occur to them to produce a picture of the events from the participants’ point of view. Given the notoriety of Oakland’s sideshows, it is an oversight that would be incomprehensible except that most of the participants are black or brown youth — a demographic the media doesn’t generally take seriously.
But in the late 1990s, amateur videographers began doing the work of journalists, capturing the sideshows from the inside. They compiled a library of videotape that shows a phenomenon far different from the one seen on the evening news or described in the pages of the Oakland Tribune. For one videographer, it has led to recognition by a national film society and a promising career in cinema. For another, it turned into an appearance as a witness in a murder trial. For Oakland, it’s the story of a city choking on its own dark youth, unwilling or unable to take advantage of the tremendous potential rising up from the cracks of its sidewalks.
See the game goes deep when you’re rolling
Hanging on the streets of Oakland
Nighttime falls and everybody’s perking
No punks around so funk’s occurring
But the sideshow’s back and everybody’s flossin’
In they ride trying to slide and all the freaks are tossing
— Rapper Ant Banks, “Streets of Oakland”
For Yakpasua Zazaboi, the story began with his first visit to Oakland in 1993 or 1994. “I grew up in Daly City,” Zazaboi says. “I’d never been to Oakland until I was about fifteen or sixteen. We never even knew there was a bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. We just thought the whole world was Frisco, and Oakland was just like a part of Frisco we’d never been to. But one night, about four of us got in a car and came out to East Oakland, and we hit this corner around 68th, around ten o’clock, and that’s when we come up on it.”
The “it” they’d come up on was a gathering of a hundred or more cars in the lower lot at Eastmont Mall. Scores of young black people were wandering between vehicles, dancing, chilling, kickin’ it, blaring music, showing off their clothes and cars, trading phone numbers with the opposite sex.
“It was just black folks and cars everywhere,” Zazaboi recalls, grinning at the memory. While his father is Liberian and his mother is from Massachusetts, there’s no trace of either in Zazaboi’s accent, which is pure California black. “It filled up the whole lot, all down there by Taco Bell and where the old McDonald’s used to be. People was walking around just talking. Having fun. And the thing that made me fall in love with it was the fact that here we are in Oakland, but was from the other side of the bay that was supposedly feuding with Oakland at that time, but people weren’t tripping off any of that. They weren’t looking at us as if we were a threat. They was more like a welcoming thing, like, ‘Man, you see us, now get out the car and be with us.'”
The gathering had none of the tension and drama of later sideshows. The early Eastmont events were spontaneous gatherings of young African Americans trying to avoid the drug-related shootings and fights that often plagued black clubs and parties. Left to their own devices, the Eastmont sideshowers apparently created a safe, fun space without bothering anyone else — safe, at least, in the context of Oakland. Police generally left the gatherings alone.
According to Zazaboi, the very word “sideshow” probably traces back not to the frenetic car culture it has come to symbolize, but to the laid-back practice of “siding,” or driving at slow speed down the avenue, one hand on the steering wheel, slumped down in the seat, leaned against the door, free elbow out of the window, chilled, scoping from side to side. Latino kids would call it low-riding.
The Eastmont gatherings incorporated the East Oakland tradition of swinging donuts, that odd display in which drivers swing their car in a circle in such a way that it squeals in protest, sending up clouds of smoke and leaving marks on the pavement. But in the mid-1990s, donuts were only one of many attractions at the Eastmont sideshows. Some nights, groups of drivers came out with fleets of gold-rimmed Delta 88s or hot Camaros, parked them in a row, and let people walk by to see who’d done the best job of fixing them up. Other nights, folks just turned up the music and danced. In a neighborhood where drug-dealings and gang shootings were rampant, who cared about a bunch of kids enjoying themselves in a parking lot?
I lived five blocks down from Eastmont during some of those years. We were passing by one afternoon a couple of years later when one of my daughters looked over at the parking lot, smiled, and said, a little wistfully: “I really miss living over here. All our friends used to come over here. People would be out showing their cars. It was tight.” For a child who avoided violence, being “tight” was her highest compliment. Three of my daughters were teenagers during those years. I don’t remember them coming in exceptionally late, and I don’t remember them mentioning trouble at the mall. I was just happy to know there was a place in Oakland where they could go, hang out with their friends, and come back safely.
Zazaboi took his first footage of a sideshow in 1994, to record the event for his own enjoyment. He and his crew soon became regulars — even more so after 1996, when his family moved across the bay to Oakland.
His first purposeful footage followed on the heels of a 1999 misunderstanding. Flipping through the Laney College course catalogue, he found a Media Department class called “Production.” Figuring it was music production, Zazaboi signed up, hoping to work on some beats he’d been developing. “First day of class, I get in there, and found out it was video production,” he recalls. “But I stuck it out there, and two or three weeks into it I decided, ‘Hey, this is something I’m going to stay with.'” He began preparing for the five-minute video every student had to complete. His would be about the sideshows.
By that time, others were recording the events too. But Zazaboi says he was the only one with a high-quality camera. “By my standards now it’s not a real camera, but back then, it was real big stuff,” he recalls. “A Super VHS. Most of these guys had little High 8s or Digital High 8s. At the time, I didn’t even know the term ‘DV cam’ or ‘mini DV.’ I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. I had something I could handle. I could work with it, and I knew I was getting some good, quality pictures.”
His efforts weren’t hurt by the fact that he was already familiar to the sideshow crowd. In fact, he’d been swinging donuts at the sideshows himself, practicing on a San Francisco beach to get his technique down. “They knew me, they recognized me, they knew I wasn’t out there trying to hurt nobody,” he says. “I was just out there trying to do a documentary. They respected that. I got my interviews. Guys just acted like I wasn’t even there.”
Zazaboi finished his video and presented it to his instructor. “Oh, man, they loved it,” he says. “At the end of the semester, the instructor played it in the auditorium. I think it got two or three applauses by the time it was done. Afterward, it was just people coming left and right, asking, ‘Can I get a copy?’ I got an A on the video. And right away, I got to work on my next project.” The one he had in mind was a thirty-minute commercial video on Oakland’s sideshows. He decided to call it “Sydewayz.”
By then, the character of the sideshows was changing. Gone were the mellow days at Eastmont. As word spread about the events, they grew larger and younger, and more people came from outside East Oakland. It was donuts they were coming out to see.
Ultimately, Oakland police decided to chase the sideshows out of the Eastmont parking lot. Police Chief Richard Word later conceded that this dispersal was “probably a mistake.” By this time, the sideshows had too much velocity to be thwarted, so they simply relocated to the parking lots at Home Base and Pak’N Save, down on Hegenberger Road near the Coliseum.
“When we first started going to Pak’N Save, it was wild,” recalls Dallas Lopes, a 24-year-old store security worker who started coming out in the fall of 2000. “There were no parameters to where the cars should be, or how close they should get to the crowd. There were a lot of times at Pak’N Save where there was one car over here … and then another car on the other side of the lot started letting loose, and everybody’s flocking over there to see.”
Eventually, the older sideshowers imposed order on the people doing donuts. Zazaboi describes the more capable performers as having “handles.” “Handles is your ability to control your vehicle,” he says. “If you didn’t have handles, you couldn’t even get out there through the crowd to get in the middle. But it was like an imaginary road for the guys who had handles. They just somehow or other made it from way in the back to out in the front. People was getting out of their way as soon as they seen them coming, to let them through.” Lopes recalls many drivers, unable to properly control their vehicles during a donut, being booed out of the circle and told to go somewhere and practice. The key, he said, was control. The idea was to spin the car in as tight a space as possible, without hitting anybody or anything.
Lopes and Zazaboi say the veterans also began to reimpose rules on the audience. Peacemakers stepped in to break up fights. Bystanders helped with cars that stalled or had minor accidents. “People tried to keep cool with each other so they could keep the event going,” Zazaboi explains. “We didn’t want to rely on the police to handle our problems. It changed things during the week, too. You would see people like me trying to keep my license good so I could get out there and drive to the sideshow without getting pulled over and towed. During the week you’d be like, ‘Man, if I go to jail tonight, I ain’t going to make the sideshow on Friday.’ So you’d be cool all week. Get the car detailed on Thursday. Get your chance to just shine on Friday and Saturday.”
In Oakland, California, every Saturday night, brothers be ridin’
Straight-lace Zeniths, rag tops, buckets, high performance
We really don’t be trippin’, you know what I’m sayin’?
Police came through, but now they’re gone
In other words, the sideshow’s on
To stop the sideshow, officer, just think
Maybe you should come and hit the spot with a tank
Cause the brothers from the O are gonna keep on ridin’
You can hit a tight one, straight sidin’
See, we ain’t really trippin’ off jail or the tickets
A brother wants to post, make bail and kick it
Now listen, this is the code to the show
For the people out there who just don’t know
If your shit is hella clean, then bring it
If it’s high performance, then swing it
If it’s a motorcycle, you better serve it
And if you get a ticket, you better deserve it
As long as you can say, “Man, I let em know”
Then peace, you did it at the sideshow
— Rapper Richie Rich, “Sideshow”
Before he developed a passion for videography, Zazaboi was drifting down a path familiar to many black youth — one that begins with drug slinging and jail, and often ends with prison, death, or both. Sitting at the table of his family’s East Oakland house, he tells his story with a mixture of reticence and quiet defiance, Snoop-Dogg braids framing his lean face, a black peacoat draped over his narrow, sloping shoulders. He doesn’t care if people know about his past, he says. He wants people to know how far he’s come.
Zazaboi dealt drugs in San Francisco as a youth and got caught and put on probation. By the time he enrolled at Laney College in the fall of 1999 he thought he had put his past behind him. But it wasn’t that easy. He was arrested on an eight-month-old warrant for what he’d thought was an offhand remark. He’d been standing on a San Francisco street corner a year before, when a stranger came up and asked to buy drugs. Thinking nothing of it, Zazaboi pointed to some men down the street and said, “Ask them. Maybe they got some.” They did, and the stranger bought. The stranger, it turned out, was an undercover police officer. Zazaboi was eventually convicted of aiding a criminal act and spent six months in the San Francisco County Jail, temporarily putting off his college career. His three-year probation ended in December.
Zazaboi — or Yap, as many of his friends call him — doesn’t see his jail time as a bad thing. “I used that time to get myself straight,” he says. “I stopped smoking weed. I stopped smoking cigarettes. I stopped drinking alcohol. I didn’t need those things.” After he got out, he crammed a semester’s worth of media classwork into two weeks, winning such respect from his teachers that, when the next semester began, they allowed him to take the school’s expensive camera equipment out to tape sideshow footage.
That’s where Lopes first observed him. Watching Zazaboi wield his camera, Lopes began developing a growing respect for the way he went about his craft.
“You’d look at him, he had braids, he looked like a lot of the people out there — he interacted just like everybody else,” the Oakland High graduate says. “But at the same time, he wasn’t hella ghetto. I didn’t know at the time he was going to Laney. But you could see he was professional. You used to see a lot of people out there dancing while they’re shooting their cameras, and you know their footage is going to look like dick. But Yap, he was somebody to watch … He always knew how the cars were going to react. He always knew where to stand. I never really knew that, because I’d never really been around cars like that. So Yap’s standing there in front of me, and I see the car coming at us — you can see the headlights coming, and my eyes are getting big — and I’m jumping out of the way, and Yap’s still standing there. And I’m, like, ‘Man, he ain’t scared of shit!’ He’d just get in the middle of the cars spinning, and the cars would be sliding all around him. Just like bullfighting with a red cape, but just with a camera.”
Lopes, who comes from a family of photographers, also had begun videotaping the sideshows with a small camcorder. One night he met Zazaboi out at Pak’N Save, and learned that Zazaboi was making a video. “At the time, I thought he was just making something like a music video,” Lopes says. “Maybe put some footage onto a tape and throw some music over it. That got me to thinking. Not to say I was copying off of him, but I was thinking that I had footage, too. Maybe mine wasn’t as good as Yap’s, but I was out there every night, taking the same chances. I started thinking about how to get my shots cleaner. And I went home and studied my tapes. Like a football coach, you know? To see how the cars moved, and to see where to get myself in the right location. I started to experiment with different kinds of shots — get different kinds of effects. And I started noticing how important it was what was going on out there. How historical it was. I wanted to document it.” Lopes eventually followed Zazaboi’s lead and enrolled at Laney.
There was more to document practically every weekend. The Hegenberger sideshows, which occurred in plain view of the street, attracted more than just crowds. They quickly attracted police attention. Instead of leaving the events alone, as they often had at Eastmont, Oakland police officers often intervened.
“Sometimes only one or two would come through,” Lopes says. “And when that happened, people would boo them and throw bottles and send them on their way. If they weren’t going to come with many cars, people would just sit around and see what they were going to do. When the police came in force, everybody would run for the exits. Sometimes they’d come even harder. They’d come walking through Pak’N Save with their riot gear on — helmets and rubber bullets — like that was needed. I’ve got some of that on tape.”
But the police didn’t stop the sideshows; they merely dispersed them. By the summer of 2001, sideshowers were riding all the East Oakland corridors, playing hit-and-run with the police, communicating by cell phone, converging on vacant intersections, swinging donuts until they were dispersed, and then scattering and re-forming blocks away. The caravans grew so large on Foothill and MacArthur Boulevards that they became impossible to stop. Lopes remembers seeing as many as five hundred cars and more than a thousand people at some of the larger gatherings. “It got crazy out there,” he recalls.
For Oakland police, it was probably the most frightening of times. Clearly, they had lost control.
The world of sydeshows and the ones that try to stop ’em
But we be from the Deep East all the way to Lower Bottoms
Punk police ain’t fuckin’ with us
Touchin’ enough heat can’t do nothin’ with us
We don’t be bustin’ then duck, we just light the whole block up
— Rapper Slowe Burna, “True 2 It”
Nothing better demonstrates how thoroughly police lost control than Zazaboi’s video “Sydewayz.” It shows the type of confrontations that were becoming commonplace: police arguing with drivers, writing tickets, chasing people on foot, pulling drivers out of cars, handcuffing them. Police uneasily questioning Zazaboi about what he’s doing with the camera. When he fibs he’s doing it for a Castlemont High School documentary, an officer goes for his cell phone, announcing that he knows the media teacher at Castlemont, and is going to check.
One of the most chilling scenes in “Sydewayz” was not shot at a sideshow, but while a friend of Zazaboi’s was driving him around East Oakland one night. It shows a grimacing officer wheeling and pointing his revolver directly at the camera, and then cuts to a young woman spread-eagled in the middle of the street, officers aiming weapons at her from behind their cars. Zazaboi says they came upon the incident by accident, and as he began filming, the officer turned his gun on them. You can hear the driver of Zazaboi’s car saying, “God, I don’t want them to blow my brains out.” Zazaboi says he included the scene because, while “it ain’t the sideshow, it’s life on the street in Oakland.”
But mostly, his footage captures the infectious enthusiasm of the young sideshowers. The half-hour video was produced without narrative, relying on visuals and street-corner comments by participants, backed up by a driving hip-hop beat. Donuts by high-performance cars dominate the footage, some throwing up smoke so thick it completely obscures the cars. Some scenes are even shot from inside the spinning cars themselves. There also are donuts by unexpected vehicles — trucks and motorcycles and even a dirt bike — as well as classic footage of someone walking a car in a circle on three wheels at a time, alternating the wheel that’s in the air, a feat of aerodynamics not easily described.
Zazaboi did most of the technical work himself, from shooting to editing to designing the DVD and video boxes. Using savings from jobs at Hayward’s Life Chiropractic College and the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio, he cut four thousand copies of the documentary and turned his attention to marketing. Having little money left for advertising, he went both low-tech and high-tech, setting up a Web site, passing out flyers, and relying on word of mouth and hand-to-hand sales as he and his friends toured the sideshows on the weekends. Sales exceeded all expectations. Recently, he said, his brother discovered a box at the house containing the last ten copies. “I thought they were all gone,” Yap said. “It was like finding a gold mine.”
The Oakland video-buying public wasn’t alone in its regard for “Sydewayz.” The video also impressed the judges at Oakland’s nationally recognized Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. At the insistence of his Laney College instructors Oji Blackston and Wendell Cooper, Zazaboi entered the video in the association’s 2001 awards competition. “I didn’t even know anything about these competitions,” Zazaboi confesses. “I didn’t even know about the Black Filmmakers.” But they soon knew about him. “Sydewayz” won an award in the association’s 2001 community category.
Cheryl Fabio, operations manager for the City of Oakland’s KTOP television station, also was impressed with Zazaboi’s abilities and vision, although she says he still has work to do on his craft. “He has great rhythm with his material,” she says. “Sometimes he had longer scenes and sometimes he would have shorter scenes, but he seemed to be able to hold onto a shot just long enough to capture the drama of it, and then know when to end it.” Fabio says her station even offered Zazaboi a job, but he turned it down. “Everybody else thought he was coming, but I didn’t,” she says. “I would have loved to have him here, but he’s an artist, and that’s not the type of work we do.”
Buoyed by the success of “Sydewayz” and the continuing growth of the sideshows, an ever-increasing number of videographers was turning up at the events. Lopes remembers seeing as many as twenty video cameras a night, most of them camcorders carried by people shooting home movies. But several cameramen had other things in mind. “By the end of 2001, everybody and their mama was talking about doing a documentary about the sideshows,” Zazaboi recalls. “I’d be out there and they’d be talking about it right behind me.”
Eventually, several other videographers came out with videos of their own. “510 Town Lyfe” “puts you in the driver’s seat and takes you for a spin in the streets of Oakland, showcasing amazing stunts by professional, amateur ryders, and crowd participants.” Notes on the video’s box urged viewers, “If you come, don’t hate, participate!” “Baller Town” promised “fast cars” and “fine broads” and announced “The party’s on! Taking over the streets.” “Sideshows & Ho’s” promised “real police chases, fights, shootings, and a whole lot of XXX-rated girls!” — sort of a Girls Gone Wild in sepia tones. All in all, these videos were mostly sideshow footage with hip-hop beats slapped atop them. Not bad, but not on a par with “Sydewayz.”
But Zazaboi’s growing notoriety had one clear downside. Even before the release of “Sydewayz,” he often found himself being stopped by patrol cars as he drove Oakland’s late-night streets, easily recognizable as he was with his professional-quality camera. By late 2001, he felt that he was being targeted by the police.
Zazaboi captured one such altercation in “Sydewayz.” The scene shows an Oakland police officer cursing him and rushing, ordering him to drop his camera and demanding his driver’s license. As you hear Zazaboi off-camera protesting that “I wasn’t even driving,” followed by the sound of scuffling, the camera swings wildly, and then cuts off.
Zazaboi later hired Oakland attorney John Burris and sued Officer Shannon Barbour and the city of Oakland. His complaint alleges that while he was videotaping Barbour trying to break up a sideshow crowd near 90th and MacArthur in late 2000, “she walked over to plaintiff and told him she was issuing him a citation for standing in the roadway. When plaintiff uttered an objection to receiving a citation, the defendant maliciously assaulted the plaintiff by grabbing his left arm, yanking it behind his back, and knocking his video camera to the ground.” Barbour arrested Zazaboi for misdemeanor battery on a peace officer, but the charges were later dropped. Both Barbour and the city of Oakland denied Zazaboi’s allegations in court papers, and the matter is presently pending in Alameda County Civil Court. Fortunately for him, the camera was undamaged, and video of the incident was salvaged for posterity and evidence.
It didn’t help Zazaboi that he was still on probation from the drug conviction. He says a friendly police officer warned him that Oakland police suspected he was staging sideshows in order to get more video footage, and were setting him up for a bust. He stopped driving his own car and moved to Hayward.
According to Zazaboi and Lopes, Oakland City Councilman Larry Reid even accused Zazaboi of using his videography activities as a cover for selling crack, and threatened to expose his past arrests for drug dealing, following a KMEL “Street Soldiers” radio program on the sideshows broadcast from Frick Middle School in Oakland in the spring of 2002. While Reid’s initial comments were not audible to reporters, its aftermath sure was. Reid stomped across the auditorium floor away from Zazaboi in the direction of a group of police officers at the front door, shouting, “I’m going to pull your record!” When Lopes tried to calm Reid down, the councilman snapped at him, “I can get anybody’s police record I want. I’m the vice mayor of Oakland!”
Both Reid and his staff failed to respond to repeated requests for comment about his allegations. But Zazaboi shrugs off the threat. “My record ain’t no mystery to anybody,” he says. “I’ll gladly tell anybody who wants to know. You ain’t going to see nothing there after three or four years ago. And you’re going to see a complete turnaround to where I’m at now.”
Oakland Police Lieutenant David Kozicki does not mention Zazaboi by name, but confirms that his department is looking into the possibility of arresting some sideshow videographers and seizing their tapes. In fact, Oakland police acknowledge that they are reviewing amateur video footage, taken on International Boulevard on the night of the “Raider Riots,” for the purpose of identifying suspects.
“Because the activity being filmed is frequently a crime, the videotape actually becomes evidence,” writes Kozicki, one of the coordinators of the city’s effort to curb sideshows. “This is especially true if the purpose of the illegal activity and taping is to produce a ‘for-profit’ film, thus possibly constituting a conspiracy and continuing criminal enterprise. Therefore, officers have sought to seize the tapes, leading to additional questions and confrontations regarding ‘First Amendment rights’ etc.”
First Amendment rights are apparently all the rights such videographers can count on. Because amateurs are not protected by California’s more comprehensive Evidence Code Shield Law, police have the right to seize their tapes. According to William Bennett Turner, a lecturer on the First Amendment and the press at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a practicing San Francisco attorney, the Shield Law only applies to journalists working for a news outlet, not amateur videographers — even those who hope to sell their material to a news outlet.
Kozicki adds that the department has another problem with amateur videographers: their habit of approaching officers in the process of issuing an arrest or citation — an intrusion that understandably can make the officers nervous in an already tense situation.
Through late 2001 and 2002, the Oakland police certainly had enough to worry about. At a town hall meeting of residents, sideshow participants, and public officials held at Eastmont Mall in June 2001, Captain Ron Davis reported that his department was committing sixty to eighty officers on weekend nights to control the events, at a cost of $30,000 a night. In a report to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, Davis reported that officers were issuing five thousand sideshow-related citations every three months, while towing several hundred cars and making several hundred arrests.
Still, Davis, Kozicki, and other officers expressed frustration that they did not have the all the tools they needed to shut down the events. While they had the ability to tow cars from the events, the owners could simply come down the next day to retrieve the vehicles for a $200 towing fee, they noted. City Manager Robert Bobb announced that city officials were seeking a legislator to sponsor a bill that would allow police to seize cars from the sideshows and hold them for thirty days, at a cost to the owner in excess of $1,500.
Bobb shopped the bill around Sacramento during the end of 2001, but it was never introduced. When you got outside Oakland’s borders, the problem of the sideshows didn’t seem to warrant state action. After all, nobody had even gotten killed at a sideshow.
I drove up on a sideshow on Cinco de Mayo, 2002, just before dusk. A group of mostly Latino kids had taken over International south of Seminary, and were swinging cars to the applause and cheers of the sidewalk crowd. A single police car cruised through and left quicker than it arrived, pelted by bottles. Within a few minutes, police on motorcycles were lined up across International and began a sweep up the street and sidewalks, moving everything ahead of them that wasn’t nailed down. Not a person was arrested, car towed, or ticket written. The cars and onlookers retreated sullenly, disappearing into the backstreets like the Lakota Sioux vanishing at the advance of Custer’s cavalry. The cops were giving these kids a lesson in how the police can be outmaneuvered in the street. Eight months later and only a few blocks away, a similar crowd was burning cars and vandalizing stores, using similar tactics to evade police in the well-publicized aftermath of both the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
By February of 2002, Lopes considered himself a veteran sideshow videographer. Though he hadn’t yet produced a video, he’d filled between fifty and one hundred tapes, shooting every weekend night for thirteen straight months. “Even if I worked my night job at the bar, two o’clock came around, I was running for my car, and my camera was all ready to go,” he says. He tried to differentiate his work from other videographers, getting angles that others didn’t consider. And he’d lost his fear of being close to the cars.
“I was getting this close as they started to burn,” he says, standing up and squatting like a linebacker with his hands a couple of feet apart, “so I could see the smoke right in the lens. At the end of the night, I’d come home smelling like burnt rubber. Even if the car was coming thirty miles an hour, I was right there. I used to run in back of the cars with the camera low to the ground, and turn the camera with them as they turned their cars. I was always trying to get some crazy, weird angles. There’s a lot of shots I’ve got where I’ve almost been hit. You can see the view change because I’m jumping on the hood of another car, or running away. … It was a thrill to me.”
He felt, too, that he was catching up with the amount of footage Zazaboi had shot. “After his video came out, I noticed Yap was still out there with a camera sometimes, but not as much,” he says. “There were times, if there was only a small amount of people on the strip, he’d be out there with his cousin and his brother, just enjoying it like everybody else. Me, I’m kind of opposite. If there was something going on, it didn’t matter what, I was going to videotape it. I just like capturing stuff on tape. I like capturing moments.” Toward the end of 2001, television coverage of the events was bringing in people from across the Bay Area who thought the sideshows meant only ripping and running up and down the streets, ducking police, and generally raising hell. More often than not, police cars were met with a shower of bottles when they came up on the events in intersections. And confrontations between participants became more frequent. “I don’t know if they were starting to get bored or whatever,” Lopes says, “but I noticed the younger crowd were starting to fight more, and were talking more shit to people.”
Early on a Saturday morning in mid-February, just as the clubs were letting out, Lopes and a friend were cruising Foothill Boulevard near Seminary. They stopped when they saw a car hit a donut in the intersection of 60th and Foothill. There weren’t enough people for Lopes to consider it a sideshow, but he pulled out his video camera anyway. He stood in the street and taped a large Buick doing a couple of circles in the intersection — his car was too big to do a donut, Lopes recalls — and then heard somebody shout, “Here comes the police.”
The instructions from his teachers and hours of study of his videos had prepared Lopes for how to handle the camera to get the kind of footage he was looking for. Hold the camera steady. Pan slowly. Lead the cars. And, most importantly, keep the camera rolling until all the action had finished, so he’d end up with a continuous shot with no jerky edits.
He taped the Buick speeding away up 60th and the police car coming after it in hot pursuit. He kept the camera going until he saw the cars again, making the block and running back across the intersection of 61st and Foothill without flashing lights or sirens, both cars disappearing toward Bancroft. Afterward, a few more people walked up to the intersection, a few high-performance cars showed up, and a serious sideshow developed. Lopes and Jones stayed for about a half-hour, continuing to tape, until a fight broke out, they heard shots, and everybody ran. They got back in their car and drove down Seminary toward International.
There they came up on a horrific accident: yellow crime tape draped across the street and police milling around two mangled automobiles. One, a black Chevy Cavalier, was bent almost double by the impact and pushed into the wall of an apartment. The second one was the big Buick. Lopes learned from a police officer that a passenger in the Cavalier had been killed in the accident. He also learned later that the Buick had been driven by a 27-year-old Oakland resident named Eric Crawford.
It took Lopes a while to realize that, inadvertently, he’d captured his “moment.” His footage ended with the police car chasing the Buick in a direct line toward the accident, only a few blocks away.
The next evening, Lopes went to pick up his younger sister from an Oakland High School field trip. A teacher told him about the death of U’Kendra Johnson, whose own younger sister was also on the trip. It was not until then that Lopes realized that the girl who had died in the accident was his own former Oakland High School classmate. “And I thought, hold on,” he said, “I think I’ve got that on tape.”
By Saturday night, the news of Johnson’s death was all over local TV, with a front-page article in Sunday’s Oakland Tribune. But except for a brief mention on one station, local media said nothing about a high-speed police chase. Instead, relying upon police department reports, local media outlets blamed Johnson’s death on a sideshow — albeit one that Lopes insists never even occurred. Throughout 2002, public officials rarely mentioned sideshows without linking them to the death of U’Kendra Johnson. Even the memorial Web page for 1997 Oakland High School graduates listed Johnson under “‘Sideshow’ Automobile Accident.”
With Councilman Larry Reid leading the charge, Oakland officials revived the car-confiscation bill. Carried by state Senator Don Perata and state Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, the bill — now dubbed the “U’Kendra Johnson Memorial Act” — passed both houses of the legislature and was signed by Governor Davis in the summer of 2002. Despite complaints that the new law allowed police to seize and confiscate automobiles solely on the word of police and without any hearing or trial, the Memorial Act became one of the OPD’s major tools in trying to take back control of East Oakland’s streets.
Meanwhile, the U’Kendra Johnson tape became a Bay Area media mystery. News outlets heard rumors about its existence, but no mainstream reporters evidently saw it or could figure out who’d taken it. Lopes decided not to come forward, opting instead to quietly pass on copies to the families of both U’Kendra Johnson and Eric Crawford. “I was kind of freaking out after that,” Lopes recalls. “I knew the importance of what I had. Maybe I watch too much TV, thinking that OPD was going to find out I had it, or something.” He made several copies, and hid the original. Eventually, the furor died down, and the tape itself passed into urban legend.
Then, last December, someone leaked the existence of Lopes’ videotape to the Alameda County district attorney. Lopes was called as a witness at Crawford’s preliminary hearing, where he contradicted official denials that a high-speed police chase preceded the accident. The videotape was played at the hearing. The district attorney’s office took the tape so seriously that it subsequently had it digitally enhanced to determine if the participating officers could be identified. The attempt was unsuccessful. Lopes expects that he will be called again to testify at Crawford’s trial, as well as in a possible lawsuit against the city that is being contemplated by Johnson’s family.
After the accident, Lopes turned his attention to his Laney video classes and stopped going out each weekend to tape the sideshows. But he still often thinks about them.
“To this day, if I hear a high-performance car outside, just hear the engine revving, I get this nostalgic feeling, like it’s the sideshow all over again,” Lopes says one night in East Oakland. “I don’t really come out this way anymore — this far east. Just being over here for the last hour or so, you hear the cars go by, and I want to run outside and see what’s going on. I used to do that over my girlfriend’s house. I’d be getting ready to go to bed and hear somebody do a donut, and I’m running outside, in my underwear, just to see. That’s what the sideshows were to me.”
Under Perata’s proposal, police could take the cars of anyone arrested on charges of reckless driving, exhibition of speed, or participating in a speed contest. We sympathize with those who want to halt sideshows, which have left young people dead in Oakland, Fremont and other Bay Area cities. But we’re unwilling to sacrifice our constitutional rights as a solution. … Until people are found guilty of causing those problems, they shouldn’t be punished. Something, of course, needs to be done about sideshows. … Some sideshow fans have asked for a sanctioned spot to show off their cars. Others say there’s nothing else for them to do. Until those issues are addressed, sideshow drivers will probably continue spending their nights searching for a wide-open space of concrete to show off their speed.
— Oakland Tribune editorial on the car-confiscation bill, April 30, 2002
It’s the night after Oakland’s now-infamous “Raider Riots,” which were played over and over on nationwide sports and news broadcasts. Zazaboi had been out the night before, riding the East Oakland streets, taping the events. He’s in the last stages of the editing process of “Sydewayz II,” which will cover the sideshows from 2001 until the present, and he’s thinking about places where the new footage can be plugged in.
Laney College instructor Oji Blackston is discussing his star student. “He’s learned so much that he doesn’t even have to come to the classes anymore,” Blackston says of Zazaboi. “He’s at a different level now. He’s created his own DVD. He’s gone through all the phases. Basically, he’s self-motivated. He’s using the editing equipment working on another piece right now, and while he’s doing that, because he knows all the systems, we also have him assist us in helping other students.”
Zazaboi is even working out plans to teach a media class at Laney, something he says he’ll be able to do without a college degree: “I won’t get teacher’s pay, but I’ll be a teacher.” As for the degree, he’s got plans for that, too. He’s set his sights on NYU, which has one of the country’s finest film schools. People who know him, KTOP’s Fabio for one, won’t be surprised if he ends up there. “He’s got that kind of potential,” she says.
Meanwhile, Zazaboi and some friends are quietly working on plans to set up legal sideshow events. While he says it’s premature to go into detail about the plans, he stresses that he wants to cooperate with city government and the Oakland Police Department. “Some of the people in government think I’m antipolice, but that’s not true,” Zazaboi says. “If I was antipolice, I’d have to be against my father and my sister.” Zazaboi’s father is a counselor with the San Francisco Youth Authority. His sister is a deputy in the Santa Clara County sheriff’s department.
Zazaboi’s idea might have a better chance if Councilman Reid makes an expected run for the state Assembly. Reid, the chairman of the city council’s Public Safety Committee and an influential voice on police affairs, has consistently stated his opposition to any form of legalized sideshow activity.
Back in the Laney Media Department, a student comes by and asks for help with the editing gear. Zazaboi walks with her to another room to provide assistance, while Blackston and a couple of students continue to watch his “Raider Riot” footage on a monitor. It takes them all a moment to figure out what they’re seeing.
All day long, everyone has seen news broadcasts of the rioting along International Boulevard: the burning of trash cans, the trashing of cars, the gutting of the auto body shop in Fruitvale, the looting of the paint store near 50th — plate-glass windows shattered and white paint sloshed across the middle of the street. Zazaboi has captured none of this. Instead, he’s got a half hour of footage shot in front of Eastmont Mall, taken at the same time the rioting was going on elsewhere.
Perhaps fifty cars, maybe more, are cruising the strip in front of the mall, driving north toward downtown, making the turn that breaks up the median, and then heading back south toward 73rd. There are so many cars that it’s almost one continuous loop. No one is driving fast. No one seems in a hurry. Drivers and passengers dance in their seats as they go along. People grin and flash signs at the camera, shouting out and representing for the areas they come from. Several women have gotten out on the hoods or tops of cars and are sitting as the cars move, waving to the folks on the other side of the median. One or two cars cross the grass of the median strip itself.
It’s the old sideshow crowd. It looks for all the world like a parade, a joyful celebration by Oakland youth, mellowing, not bothering anybody, and not being bothered. Young people trying as hard as they can to get away from the drama and the violence they’ve grown up with. On the one night when all of Oakland’s police are busy elsewhere, the sideshows have returned to their original home and their original form. The sideshows exist in a thousand Oakland hearts, waiting to come back in one form or another whenever the opportunity arises.
“Basically, all you got to do is find a parking lot, you know what I’m saying? Park there, crank your music, and like they say, if there’s music, motherfuckers are going to come. Everybody do they thing. If you got something that’s tight, get out there and swing your shit. But if you get out there and can’t swing and it ain’t real, motherfuckers gonna let you know. The only thing about sideshows is keeping it real. If you come to town and you want to see some real shit, this is the place to be.”
— Anonymous street interview, “Sydewayz”